Methodists Shun Gays in Congregation, Clergy

The highest judicial court of the United Methodist Church recently decided to defrock a lesbian minister and to reinstate a minister who refused to allow a gay man to join his congregation. Jason DeRose reports on how students and professors at a Methodist seminary are responding to the prolonged battle over homosexuality and the church.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, if you haven't heard the '80s band Drink Me in a while, maybe it's because they were once called the quietest rock 'n' roll group ever.

First this. There are 10 million United Methodists in this country. Now the church's highest court says a lesbian pastor must leave her ministry. It also reinstated another pastor who had been removed from his duties after he refused to allow a gay man to join his congregation. NPR's Jason DeRose visited Garrett Evangelical Methodist Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, to see how seminarians and faculty are dealing with these rulings.

JASON DeROSE reporting:

The trees on campus are well into their slow autumn dissolve, and you can hear organ music wafting from the Chapel of the Unnamed Faithful.

(Soundbite of door opening and closing)

Professor KEN VAUX (Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary): Let's get started because we have a full evening. One never plans for events crescendoing as they have for this course.

DeROSE: Inside, students and faculty are still coming to grips with the decisions of the Judicial Council, especially students in Professor Ken Vaux's course, Homosexuality and the Church. The seminarians, about a dozen in this class, are evaluating the Judicial Council's rulings in light of Methodist theology and church teaching. Reverend Bea Soots, who's taking the course as a form of continuing education, says the ruling to exclude gays and lesbians from congregations sets an unsettling precedent.

Reverend BEA SOOTS: Our discipline uses language for the practice of homosexuality, and we use almost identical language for the practice of war. So the precedent set by allowing this pastor to reject this man from membership on the basis of a perceived sin raises the question of who else will be excluded.

DeROSE: Third-year seminarian Steven Frasier's(ph) greatest concern is that the ruling undermines the church's understanding of grace.

Mr. STEVEN FRASIER (Seminarian): I do not see how they could possibly allow a person to refuse another person in that manner, personally. That's...

Prof. VAUX: So you're rooting your argument in the two central sacraments...

Mr. FRASIER: In our sacraments.

Prof. VAUX: ...baptism and Eucharist.

Mr. FRASIER: That's right.

DeROSE: These students, who, after all, enrolled in an elective course titled Homosexuality and the Church, think that by and large the two judicial rulings are problematic at best. But not all seminarians at Garrett Evangelical agree.

(Soundbite of pages turning)

DeROSE: Third-year student and St. Louis native James Cooper(ph) is leafing through the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which outlines expectations for pastors and prohibits clergy in same-sex relationships.

Mr. JAMES COOPER (Seminarian): If we want to change our Book of Discipline, that's fine. But if we're not going to follow it, we might as well just throw it out.

DeROSE: For Cooper, it comes down to what the Bible prohibits.

Mr. COOPER: For me, it's just hard to make a scriptural argument that can do anything but say that, as our discipline says, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

DeROSE: Faculty at Garrett Evangelical fall along both sides of this issue. Ethics and theology Professor Steve Long understands the Judicial Council's ruling as uniquely Methodist.

Professor STEVEN LONG (Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary): We are something of a holiness sect within the church catholic that is supposed to embody a kind of common life grounded in a discipline. In the Methodist Church, you are asked at your ordination, `Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?'

DeROSE: But there are faculty members, such as professor of pastoral care James Poling, who do not see being gay as an imperfection.

Professor JAMES POLING (Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary): In fact, I believe that the church's decision to exclude gay and lesbian students is going to be very costly for the church because the kind of talent, the kind of sensitivity and the kind of interpersonal skills that some of these people have are so crucial for the success of the church itself. So what we're doing is we're losing a whole talented pool of people that, at this time, we can't afford to do.

DeROSE: Poling says the United Methodist Church, along with other denominations, needs to shift its focus from specific sexual acts deemed sinful toward the quality of relationships, whether a partnership is nurturing and life-affirming or not. And he says those standards should be applied to straight and gay couples alike. Jason DeRose, NPR News.

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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